Photo by Linda HeronPhoto Credit

What is River Management – by Frederick W. Schueler

by Frederick W. Schueler

Bishops Mills Natural History Centre

RR#2 Bishops Mills, Ontario, Canada K0G 1T0

This citation was “originally published in River Management Society Journal 24(2):1,14-15.”

My wife Aleta and I constitute the BMNHC as a “mom & pop” research institute, with the goal of studying conspicuous but neglected aspects of ecological change. We find many aspects of rivers to be conspicuous but neglected, and we’ve developed low cost protocols for remedying aspects of this neglect. We work with some agencies of the conservation bureaucracy including the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ontario Freshwater Mussel Recovery Team, and South Nation Conservation Authority, and have assisted a number of NIMBY’s who were unsettled by plans to change rivers near their homes, but mostly we study and publicize those groups of organisms that are widely noticed but not recognized to species, and ecosystems and communities that are rapidly changing for whatever reasons. Mike Greco signed me up as a member of the RMS in 2005-2006, but I find that only 28  messages from the e-mail list persist in my archives. I found the problem with the RMS list-serve and publications was that they were about managing and regulating recreational use of the rivers in the USA: [management of people, not of the river itself]. It seemed that the US RMS was a professional organization of regulators of aquatic entertainment and enforcers of riverine regulations, and while this doesn’t interface with my status as an unemployable generalist, it also doesn’t seem to be something that’s done as a profession in Canada.

It might be possible to derive the institutional differences from the national vision statements of “Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” vs “Peace, order, and good government,” but here I’ll just notice the existence of the differences. It’s also true that many Canadian rivers are so interrupted that they seem more like overflow valves than like entities, with the result that official attention is often focused on natural and artificial lakes, rather than on the running water that connects them.

The International Joint Commission more-or-less handles the international boundary rivers, which are just joins between, and overflow from, the Great Lakes. In Ontario, watershed-delimited Conservation Authorities manage inland rivers and streams, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans divide up the responsibility for the fauna in a complex maze of legislation and agreements and contracts which wouldn’t be comprehensible to anyone from a country with a simpler constitution, while federal and provincial ministries of the environment deal with pollution.  And they do a pretty good job: when I replicated Francis Robert Latchford’s 1880-1882 survey of eastern Ontario Unionid mussels – in 1995-1998, I found all the species he’d found, except for one species that had been very rare, and that requires an anadromous host fish. Even the less enthusiastic Conservation Authorities, with various provincial and federal ministries looking over their shoulders, do a competant job.

In recent decades many “Friends of” groups have organized to look out for various watersheds and their rivers, while lake associations have similar roles around populated lakes.  The Ottawa Riverkeepers have recently set up as a ‘friends of’ for this neglected stream, which is the only river which forms the boundary between provinces. Workers in all these associations and agencies deal with the rivers, but Meredith Brown, the Ottawa Riverkeeper, is just about the only person I know of whose “job” is formally about rivers.

Aleta and I are stuck with seeing beauty and interest everywhere, which makes us uncomprehending of scenic-beauty tourism.  We’re all in favour of wilderness, but only for the sake of the species that can live there without human interference, not for the whiz urbanites can get by paddling through it without making any contribution to human knowledge in the process.  We don’t enter reserves or parks unless we’re asked to do so to document conditions there, and we haven’t ever seen a stream that wasn’t worthy of study and appreciation – if it happens to be degraded it would seem to make more sense to us to work for local restoration rather than skedaddling to some remote place that isn’t ruined yet.

For us river management is maintaining biotic diversity, natural flow regimes & connectedness, and oligotrophic conditions. Elements of these concerns may have been a substratum of what’s discussed by the RMS, but they were never explicit.  I’m not suggesting that overall management is better or worse in either country, but given the different institutional background, what’s the available niche for the CRMS in a landscape full of agencies and “friends of” and Waterkeepers? Is there some kind of co-ordinating role it can grow to fill? Is it a society for the preservation of the historic fur trade canoe routes? A league for the restoration of oligotrophy? Co-ordinators of peripherally riverine bureaucracies? Friends of Benthic Invertebrates?

So here’s a couple of paragraphs about our concerns for river management, beyond the traditional abatement of gross pollution, maintainence of stocks of exploited & officially endangered species, and reduction of soil erosion & flooding;

Biotic diversity:  Our background in museum biology leads us to espouse a radical biological egalitarianism: each species counts as one in the tally regardless of whether it’s a “species at risk,” an “invasive alien,” or as common as Green Frogs. In our case this is the “meta-herpetofauna” or “macro” invertebrates which we’ve surveyed and promoted as interesting over the past thirty-five years — Crayfish, mussels, and terrestrial & aquatic Gastropods — groups of which Ontario has a modest number of species, but which aren’t generally identified by naturalists or government agencies at the species level.[1]

It’s only possible to understand, and manage, what you know, and the challenge is the same as it has always been: for every naturalist to recognize and record and document the occurrence of as many species as he or she can, and for agencies to track and regard the status of as many taxa as possible, both natives and introduced aliens.

Natural flow regimes & connectedness: Rivers are ecological connections and migratory pathways, so a dam immediately breaks what were continuous populations into segments. Some can endure this, and some can’t. Even species that aren’t usually thought of as migratory may be limited by dams: we’ve found that Mudpuppies aren’t found upstream of the lowermost dams or weirs on the tributaries of the Rideau River. If a species of mussel, for example, can’t live in an impoundment or a Zebra Mussel-infested mainstream, those fragments of the species which happened to live in tributaries suddenly become isolated populations.

The easiest thing to do to a river is to dam it up for the sake of power, flood control, or water-taking (as it’s called in Ontario).  Impoundments are often biological deserts, because of the extreme water level fluctuations they undergo. They’d be less of a problem if more thought was given to managing the level fluctuations to minimize the impact of the fluctuations, and the temperature of the outflow, on the biota. In calcium-rich waters, reservoirs are sources of Zebra Mussels, which effectively wipe out the native biota downstream of the dam. The James Bay hydro dams in Quebec eliminated many populations of the  anadromous fish on which the local People depended.

Oligotrophic conditions:  The fundamental finding of the study of nutrient cycling is that mature terrestrial communities allow so little of the major nutrients past their root webs that there is a net removal of fixed nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from precipitation. Our native aquatic fauna was adapted to the resulting oligotrophic conditions in nutrient-poor waters, so it should be a major goal of river management to so maintain the health of the watershed that minimal nutrients enter ground water and streams. Any water, even pure rainwater, that is not filtered by a well-developed root network of sod or forest, increases plant growth and eutrophication, and should be considered a pollutant.

Almost every sort of environmental degradation results in the leakage of mineral nutrients, because of stress to the root-web, deaths of organisms, the disruption of soil, or the introduction of concentrated nutrients that cannot be used by plants. Careless agriculture, soil erosion, paving of ground, clear-cutting, acidic precipitation, high concentrations (at least) of pesticides, and organic or inorganic water pollution all result in the release of nutrients into outflow water. Conventional methods of treating sewage are designed solely to deal hygenically with human pathogens, and take no notice of the nutrient content of the wastes, except in cases where grossly excessive phosphorus would cause offensive algal blooms.

Of course, all conservation organizations are dealing with aspects of these concerns, but the actions tend to be fragmented, rather than foundational. “Biodiversity” is fragmented into management of exploited stocks, control or monitoring of recognized invasive species, and care for “species at risk.” Connectedness is of concern only when an exploited or conspicuously migratory species is obstructed,  and nutrient management tends to deal with “point sources” rather than with the whole texture of the landscape.

In 1989 I encountered some first nationers protesting on a road through their traditional territory in British Columbia, with signs calling for “Wholeistic Forestry.” I sprang out of my car and asked them “Don’t you know that holism is illegal in this country?” and they said “We’re beginning to learn that.” However, I recently googled the area they were standing up for, and the proposed logging road they were protesting didn’t seem to be there. The world is holistic, and solutions don’t come from simplifying, fragmenting, or bureaucratizing complex situations, or from failing to consider the existence of fundamental processes.

[1]    See our “How to do a Bridge” protocol at and our invertebrate identification manual at